When I was young, I lived in the woods beside a river. I didn’t know many other children, because we didn’t go into town often. This was okay with me, I preferred the woods.
My family was friends with a couple of other families, other Cumberland rangers and their wives and children. Sometimes, while the adults talked, about gardens and the National Park Service and the paper mill, we’d play. It was never as much fun as being at home and, often, being around people that were not in my family made me feel something that I now realize was loneliness. I am still not quite sure why that was, or is.
When I was four, my mother went back to teaching school and so we had to go to school, too. The preschool was in a little house in the middle of town, across the street from the elementary school I would go to the next year. This was, for all practical purposes, my introduction to the big world of children other than my little brother.
I remember the place quite clearly, because I remember most places quite clearly. It smelled like bleach and brillo pads and the light was a dull grey-yellow, the very same color as the linoleum floor. There were two rooms we were allowed to go into, the dining room and the living room. Both were largely empty.
In the dining room there was a table and in the living room there was a television and a single chair for an adult to sit in and watch Happy Days while we laid on thin pads for a forced “nap” that, most days, took up the entire afternoon.
While I recollect the space, I don’t remember much of the other children, just that they were loud. The prettiest girl once bit my younger brother so hard that he bled. I was happy to have my brother there with me, because he was my friend and he stood with me at the edge of the playground, also not seeming to know quite what to do.
The kids ran and climbed on the wood that had been bolted together into some sort of play structure. I just watched, because I didn’t know how I fit into whatever game it was that they were playing.
I always wanted to go home.
The following year, on the first day of elementary school, I walked into the building alone, refusing my mother’s hand, leaving her beside the car looking sad. I felt brave as I went to the classroom that I had been shown a few days before, but as soon as I got into the room I remembered that I was expected to stay there until the afternoon and, immediately, I wanted to go home.
I didn’t like how it looked or how it smelled and how everything was bright and plastic. There was only one little window, a tall rectangle that looked out onto the brick wall of the cafeteria. The tables were round and I had to sit very close to the other kids.
One day, very early in the year, I realized that I liked a boy named Felipio. He was quiet and his name reminded me of something that might fly, like an insect. He had very long eyelashes that curled like a wave. I sat beside him every chance I got. Once, and only once, we held hands under the table. His was very warm and dry, a wonderful little hand to hold. The teacher’s assistant found our hands clasped together and she pulled them apart, explaining that we could not hold hands with one another, because Felipio’s hand was more brown than mine. She looked disgusted as she explained this and we didn’t hold hands again.
I began to hate school.
I didn’t know it, but I had a speech impediment. I could not pronounce my “R” at all. My parents tell me that they thought I’d outgrow it, but I didn’t and for several years I was removed from my class for speech class, with the kids who could hardly walk, their legs short and twisted, the kids whose eyes wheeled about like marbles behind thick glasses. I liked them better than the kids in my class, who had found out that it was fun to laugh at girls that could not say their own last names.
30 years later, in a note acknowledging the kindness of a friend:
“People sometimes don’t always respond well to my sometimes clumsy initiative in trying to help/offer support-and-enthusiasm.
I do try hard to genuinely appreciate/acknowledge/respect, but even that seems to piss people off sometimes. I don’t know why that is…
…in some cases it seems to be a weird thing re: girl-girl sexism…in other cases it may be the effect of paternalistic modernist egos among aging white male activists…and in other cases it seems to be a function of a general cynicism among the oppositionally oriented…regardless, I am often on eggshells trying do what I am inspired to do, but to do so in way that won’t upset anyone by disrupting some delicate social expectation that I don’t totally understand…
People are a fuckin’ jungle to me, except jungles are less scary, ’cause there aren’t very many people in them.”
All this being said, I wonder why it is that I don’t just say, ‘Forget it!’ and work on art and writing and explaining how, precisely, I came to believe that I proved some semblance of God to myself, deconstructed the mechanics of human consciousness, and otherwise took apart the entire world. Those endeavors of expression and interpretation would likely be more useful and less difficult than trying to find some social footing among people outside of scheduled meetings and Peer Support.
I have a lot of supporters and I have a lot of acquaintances, but I do not have very many friends. This is not particularly troubling to me. In fact, it is something I have grown quite used to over the years.
I would, however, like to laugh more…and I would like someone to hold my hand. It’s been a few weeks since I got to hold hands with someone. Billy from the BeLoved Community is about 65, a homeless beer-alcoholic who is prone to telling people to “Burn the highway up!” and “Go to the hospital!” These are his responses when people have crossed some blurry line and he’s lost patience with them. I was there talking with folks a while back, doing mutual aid like I do most every Tuesday, and Billy just sat and held my hand. His hand was warm and dry. It was a wonderful hand to hold.
For someone who has such a hard time with friends, I love a lot a people and a lot of people love me. I am lucky to have figured out ways to find meaningful connection with people through open-hearted service. It always come back to that, the gratitude of getting to know and share in people’s stories…even briefly, even as relative strangers.
As I wrote that last sentence, I realized that my life is actually full of friends. I find them everywhere and, over the past year, more than a few have become lasting. We get into the habit of thinking about our lives in ways that may distort or disregard some of the most wonderful things within them. I have lots of friends, more than I can even count, and I suspect that I will be laughing soon.